Letters from the West

Agencies already working on rehabilitation of Soda Fire’s burned landscape

The wind-whipped Soda Fire burned through the lives and businesses of ranch families in Owyhee County as it crossed vast areas of sage-grouse habitat.

Volunteers and neighbors are reaching out to help those who lost livestock and grazing land in the short term. Even before the smoke has cleared, federal officials are looking at longer-term assistance.

“A good deal of this help will come in the form of restoration,” said Steve Ellis, Bureau of Land Management deputy director.

On Sunday, Ellis and Ron Dunton, assistant director for fire and aviation at the National Interagency Fire Center, flew over the 283,000-acre fire that raced across Owyhee County last week, killing livestock and wild horses and leaving some of the best sagebrush steppe habitat black. Already, rehabilitation crews are on the ground evaluating what can be done immediately.

About 37,000 acres of “core” sagebrush habitat, which the BLM says is the best, burned up in the fire. Another 168,000 acres of “important” habitat, the next-best habitat, also burned, said Tim Murphy, Idaho state BLM director. BLM staff found 27 dead wild horses and plan to round up all they can find that may need care because they don’t have grass to eat.

Ellis was in Boise on Monday on behalf of the Department of Interior to unveil its national seed strategy, developed with the Plant Conservation Alliance and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The strategy puts an emphasis on using native seeds in ecological restoration across major landscapes, especially for those lands damaged by rangeland fires, invasive species such as cheatgrass, severe storms and drought.

“Having the right seed in the right place at the right time makes a major difference,” Ellis said.

Scientists and land managers for decades have been unable to stop the advance of cheatgrass, a big target of the plan. But Murphy said hopes are high that the seed strategy will succeed.

“I don’t think we’ll ever see 100 percent removal of cheatgrass,” he said. “What we are going to see is cheatgrass being a minor component of the rangeland in the future.”

The shortage of seeds has been identified as a major issue by the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, which will decide in September whether to list the sage grouse as an endangered species or whether a listing is unwarranted because of the collective actions of the federal government, 11 states and private interests to protect the bird’s sagebrush habitat. The strategy outlines focused research, improvements in seed production and new restoration technology to increase genetically appropriate, locally adapted seed.

That will be especially important recovering from the Soda Fire, which Murphy said burned very hot and left little rangeland untouched within its borders.

“We’re hard-pressed to find unburned islands,” Murphy said.